I did one of the most memorable rides of my life last week – the West Highland Way in a day. While this is hardly a ground-breaking achievement, it meant a lot to me on a few different levels. When I was fifteen, I read an article in a bike magazine about three folk who rode the Way in a day and I instantly wanted to do it. Actually, I wanted to do it solo and unsupported because, like ascents in climbing, I think bike rides can be done in varying levels of style and on your own is definitely ‘good style’. I also really wanted to see how I dealt with doing big rides on my own. Although I was probably fit enough back then, I didn’t get round to doing it but it managed to lodge itself deep in my head, surfacing every chance it got. After falling out of biking and through climbing, I crashed into kiting and stopped hard [broken back]. Last year I found myself back on a bike and trying to get some general fitness together when a familiar old thought made its presence felt. What better target to aim for than the West Highland Way? The route I’ve thought about more than any other just happened to be a perfect test of my general recovery and fitness.
I really started to get hyped a day or two before and didn’t really get much sleep. On the day I got up at 02:15 and drove to Milngavie. After scoffing some cereal in the carpark I got cracking at 04:30. I had read a few bits and pieces about bikes on the first half of the way that varied from “pointless” to “You will have major problems on a bike.”. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was mostly quite good fun and involved none of the anti-bike gates that I had expected (there were gates, but they were all just normal gates!). I love riding my bike early in the morning and the empty fast tracks for the first fifteen miles were a great warm-up. After not too long I came to Conic Hill, the first climb of the ride. There was a little light rain and a bit of walking involved (it would be an extremely tough climb even if I wasn’t trying to save my legs), but I still got to Balmaha way faster than I expected. The speed wasn’t to last much longer though and I soon started to find some pokey bits of singletrack on the way to Rowardennan, which were easy enough since I was fresh but they all ate away energy and time. It would be easy to skip these parts and just head along the lochside road, but that would be a bit lame and some of them are nice riding. After a puncture and a break for some more food, I made a charge for the north end of Loch Lomond, desperate to get that section over with.
It started off well enough, with easy fireroad and some fun cruising on singletrack until the posh looking Inversnaid Hotel. After the hotel, things started to get tougher. There were some big boulders to carry over at Rob Roy’s Cave, but they were simple enough and I started to think this entire section of path was going to be easy. But I was wrong. The next few miles are the hardest of the Way – the trail is much too technical to ride, with lots of carrying over annoying boulders and roots. I actually didn’t find it as irritating as it could have been and I was probably better prepared for it than most people (I’ve done plenty of long carrys – like along Loch Maree – and this one is pretty short in comparison), but it sapped a lot of energy and really slowed me down – definitely not one for the Glentress generation! I also got ‘The Scrunch’ on my bad ankle twice in just 500m, which was damn sore. The whole section along Loch Lomondside would be much faster to run and I was glad to get onto rideable trail again on the way to Tyndrum.
From here the ride started to get much more interesting to me as I started to explore the psychology of long rides. I began to feel some tiredness, the whole thing seemed like a bit of a mission and I still wasn’t even halfway. Getting to Tyndrum was further than I expected. Although the trail was good and I managed to find some legs, I hadn’t looked at the map very much and had assumed that it was just a few miles past the end of the loch. I arrived at Tyndrum tired and feeling like the end was far away, even though I was now on familiar ground. Although the first half hadn’t involved as much nastiness as I was expecting, it had still taken a fair bit longer than I had hoped and with hindsight I realise that it is harder than the top half. It’s amazing what a quarter of an hour off, a can of coke, a pork pie, a Mars bar and phone call to your parents can do for your spirits though and I headed off into the headwind towards Bridge of Orchy with renewed confidence, enthusiasm and legs.
I motored past Bridge of Orchy and was soon onto ‘the cobbles’, which were much smoother than I remembered, but went on for longer. Out on the moor I got hit suddenly with a bout of tiredness and my morale soon dropped. I still felt positive enough, but there were still thirty hilly miles to go and this was the first place that I realised the route wasn’t going to give up without a fight. It dawned on me that success on longer routes depends on a bunch of things. Firstly you need to realise that there are highs and lows for a ride, periods where confidence and legs are strong even when you feel tired and times where you can’t seem to pedal and the end seems far away. Once you’ve accepted this, the trick lies in keeping the highs going as long as possible and trying to minimise the lows. It becomes a bit of a game and working out what works is great fun in a kind of introspective way.
I forced some more food down my throat and decided to push on to Glencoe and past the Kingshouse to the bottom of the Devil’s staircase. I found it a tough few miles – sore legs, sore knees, sore back – and arrived at the bottom of the climb feeling knackered. The sun was just dropping behind the hills but I took ten minutes to put on some more clothes, sit down and scoff as much food as I could. The little break had done the trick again and I set off up Devil’s staircase like a man possessed. At the top I reminded myself to take it easy on the downhill, but that didn’t last long. The track to Kinlochleven is still one of the best downhills I have ridden in Scotland, even when tired. Although there are a couple of very short ups, it’s an excellent long downhill, with contrasting rocky and mental fast halves, that spits you out right in the town. I didn’t really stop and decided just to batter on and finish the job. I pushed up the steep hill to the Lairig and got myself back on the bike. The last fifteen miles were some of the most rewarding I have done. I was very tired, but consistently surprised myself by finding the legs and motivation to keep going at (what felt like) a reasonable pace. I had been dreading this section before the day and even up until I got there but once I got on it, it wasn’t scary or hard and although I was completely wasted, I felt good (in a first three gears only sort of way!). I knew it was nearly over and I hit the final section of woods with a burst of energy. Although pedalling uphills felt desperate, I found I was somehow able to nearly run up them (!) and decided to try to hammer the last few miles as best I could in the failing light. After a decent burst and with just a few hundred metres of singletrack left it all started falling down! I felt the start of a bonk and I cursed myself for not eating since Glen Coe. I found a couple of eccles cakes and a Mars bar in my bag, which barely touched the sides and I carried on at a much more sensible pace.
Arriving at the end of the singletrack was a magical experience. The woods cleared, the lights of Fort William were not far away and Ben Nevis suddenly came into view on the right, looking beautiful in the dusk light. I took a moment to savour the situation and felt quite emotional. I’d just ridden the best part of a hundred miles off-road, a route I had dreamt of doing for the last ten years. I’d had a pretty shitty time with my back less than two years before and this was a major milestone in my recovery. I felt great – I had been riding my bike for 18.5 hours and I had made it – but I felt even greater because I had made it feeling so good. Not in the legs, they were blasted, but in the head. I had pushed myself much further than I had before and learnt so much about myself on the way. I was ecstatic, exhausted and hyper at the same time. I wanted to stay there forever, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the last special moment that I was going to get from sport so shot off down the fireroad, feeling every bit the smug bastard. I tried to let out a victory scream, but only managed a feeble squawk and decided just to leave it at that. I checked into a youth hostel and was mid-shower when I caught myself smiling broadly. Life can be so rewarding sometimes.
I woke surprisingly early and with a satisfyingly sore full body ache. I had time to kill and wandered Fort William in the sun, drank coffee, ate sausage rolls and caught myself doing that grinning thing a few times. I felt wasted like I had been clubbing, but had a brilliant warm glow rather than a sore head. The train ride back to Glasgow must be one of the best in the country and I was able to let my mind wander and daydream. I craftily managed to escape the conversation of some crazy old guy who was saying things like “Well, you know my views on the Jerry’s – bastards!” (No, I dont, and I don’t particuarly want to) and spent the rest of the journey looking at the lovely views of the hills and the girl at the other side of the carriage.
It’s been a week since that ride and I’m sort of sad that it’s over. I have already forgotten my ‘never again!’ vows and am starting to look for a new mission. I feel like I have some good base fitness now (which was the plan for all of this) and think that I’m ready to train properly, which is something I’m really excited about – riding fast is so much more fun! It feels so good to have some confidence in my fitness again and I can’t wait to improve it some more. Maybe I’ll go get involved in some chain-ganging or something…
Wow, what a long post – I guess it was a pretty long ride though!
Final note: if you’re going to ride the Way, try to pick a day where you haven’t got the runs. Parp!